Soul on Ice
Nicholson may believe that the future of jazz lies in Europe, but Michael Dregni's Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend reminds us that a vital part of its past flourished there, too. The story of the Gypsy is one that includes survival from a near-fatal fire, the development of a ferocious, percussive and widely imitated guitar style with the use of only three working fingers, stardom in Vichy France (and unemployment after Allied victory), a disastrous American tour with Duke Ellington and more. He was a spendthrift, a near-illiterate, a dandy, a naïf and a scoundrel, and it's hard to believe he was real, although his sublime recordings and a film clip with the Hot Club provide sufficient evidence that he somehow was. He found a place in the traditional jazz canon like no other European, and none of the explanations truly suffice. As John Szwed muses in Crossovers, "In Django's case street logic had it that his great abilities stemmed from the fact that either (a) he was a Gypsy, a member of a pariah caste, and therefore homologous to black; or (b) Gypsy culture and black-American culture shared more than either did with white Euro-American culture." These provocations are fascinating, but they are also speculative. How did this Gypsy assume an exalted space in an otherwise all-American traditional jazz canon? Such a query should invite a biographer to hit the ground with some demystifying facts or researched ruminations.
Or at least some good gossip, but even that requires documentation. Reinhardt the legend has thrived, but Reinhardt the historical figure is hard to reach. French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli taught Django how to write a little in adulthood, and all he had to show for it was one semi-coherent letter. He disowned in court his one published interview and left behind little more than scratchy records, old reviews of his concerts and the fading memories of those who knew him. Reinhardt's recordings are well-known, and his percussive guitar style is still imitated and revered, but we know very little about the man himself. He was a prototype for Sean Penn's scumbag savant in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown--a film that mystified and mythified the real Reinhardt even further. Apart from some colorful anecdotes and jangling arpeggios, the Gypsy remains a mystery.
One Reinhardt performance impressed the initially disdainful guitarist Andrés Segovia enough to inspire the classical virtuoso to ask the jazz icon, "Where can I get that music?" "Nowhere," Reinhardt retorted. "I've just composed it!" The Gypsy guitarist's genius never presented itself on the page. It only added to his mystique that he seemed to live by instinct alone, even though his astonishing musical logic was obvious to anyone who could appreciate it. It would be the task of others to explain exactly what he did and how he did it. Reinhardt could have been the most significant jazz musician to come out of Europe, but he was also the most underdocumented one since Buddy Bolden died unrecorded in an insane asylum. Anyone writing a Reinhardt biography faces an extraordinary story and a nearly insurmountable task, and it would require considerable literary skill to follow a subject who left such a scant paper trail. Dregni, a contributing writer for Vintage Guitar magazine, did his fieldwork and knows every string and fret of Reinhardt's instrument, but he is not the writer for the job. This book has been justly celebrated for all the rigorous original research Dregni has done on the Gypsy. But to attain this information, one has to slog through a considerable amount of wince-inducing prose. Some examples: "Here, outside the City of Light, was a city of blight." "While Les Halles--with its vast food markets--was the poetic belly of Paris, Pigalle was its penis." "Django and Stéphane jammed on them as though their hearts beat to an American foxtrot rhythm." "For Django, it was all a moveable feast eaten during a life on the move." "For Django and for jazz, World War II was the best of times and the worst of times." "Goebbels ordained that the capital was to be its old self, the City of Light even amid the darkness of war." Reinhardt was virtually incapable of playing a cliché, but Dregni writes plenty of them.
Dregni was apparently struggling with how to write a biography and maintain a consistent narrative as he went along. We are told that Reinhardt "preferred Armstrong's formidable playing over the erudite technique of the orchestra of Duke Ellington," only to learn 100 pages later that he "attempted to style his arrangements like his other hero, Duke Ellington." How did Ellington suddenly ascend in Reinhardt's pantheon? We are told more than once that Reinhardt took a Gypsy father's pride in his son's ability to steal silverware from hotel rooms, but buried in the middle of the book--in a well-researched account of Reinhardt's artistic and commercial triumphs in Vichy France--we stumble upon this little detail: "His mother was Jewish and he could forsee what that meant." This is the first and last we hear about the Jewishness of this Gypsy star of the occupied jazz circuit, an irony begging for pages of copy. We certainly shouldn't have to wait for the Gestapo to come knocking on page 155 to discover this in a book whose subtitle promises us "The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend." There simply isn't enough archival data to lean on to present Reinhardt whole without a more adept writer's imagination and skill to fill in the gaps. By the time Reinhardt dies on his way to go fishing, it is hard to mourn the death of a man we have barely gotten to know.